National History Standards

The "Catholics and Politics: Charles Coughlin, John Ryan, and the 1936 Presidential Election" website fits squarely into National History Standards Era 8: The Great Depression and World War Two. Here are some of the ways that teachers can use this website to meet United States history curriculum standards.

The following standards are based on the National Standards for United States History, Grades 5-12, created by the National Center for History in the Schools.

Standard 1: The Causes of the Great Depression and How it Affected American Society

Standard 1B: How American Life Changed During the 1930s

The background section addresses how the Great Depression affected the nation's working class, with a specific focus on its impact on the Catholic population. Elaborating on how the majority of Catholics were drawn into the Democratic Party, the background section shows how a once marginalized religious minority were incorporated into mainstream politics during the Depression. The documents themselves, particularly letters to John Ryan and Charles Coughlin, illuminate the impact of the Depression on Americans, particularly the economic impact on the working class.

Standard 2: How the New Deal Addressed the Great Depression, Transformed American Federalism, and Initiated the Welfare State

Standard 2A: The New Deal and the Presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The site's background section discusses the New Deal as the cornerstone of the Roosevelt presidency in the 1930s, as well as how Catholics became part of the "Roosevelt coalition." The site's chronology relates numerous parts of the New Deal program and how the two chief actors, Fr. John Ryan and Fr. Charles Coughlin reacted to different parts of the New Deal program, ultimately in divergent ways. The documents specifically illuminate Catholic positions on the Roosevelt presidency and the New Deal itself, showing how Ryan and Coughlin interpreted the program in light of Catholic teaching, especially the papal encyclicals Rerum Novarum (1891) and Quadragesimo Anno (1931). Since the role of the clergy in politics was ecclesiastically unclear, moreover, the new prominence of Catholic clerical figures in national politics was controversial and came under scrutiny by non-Catholics, lay Catholics, and clerical leaders; several documents on this site reveal this aspect of Catholics and politics in the 1930s United States.

Standard 2C: Opposition to the New Deal, the Alternative Programs of its Detractors, and the Legacy of the New Deal.

The background section of the site briefly describes the early general support and the rise of opposition to many New Deal programs that developed by the mid-1930s. The Chronology traces by date the divergence in views of Frs. Coughlin and Ryan toward New Deal programs. This Chronology complements the documents themselves, which trace the fracturing of the relationship between Coughlin and Roosevelt, along with Coughlin's increasingly critical attitude toward the New Deal. Coughlin's differences with both parties compelled him to establish a separate political entity, the National Union for Social Justice, which in turn endorsed a third party candidate, William Lemke, for President, in 1936.

Fr. Ryan, on the other hand, had initially expressed less enthusiasm for a Roosevelt presidency, and became increasingly supportive of both the administration and the New Deal, even as he came to believe that the New Deal programs did not go far enough in addressing Depression-era economic problems. The documents, then, trace both the increasing support of one prominent clerical leader and the decreasing support of another. Ultimately, evidence suggests that most clerics and lay Catholics supported the New Deal.

Coughlin's nationally broadcast anti-Roosevelt campaign speeches and Ryan's "Roosevelt Safeguards America" speech of 1936 present contrasting views of Roosevelt, the New Deal, 1930s politics and the role of government in democracy in general.

 

Historical Thinking Skills

This site promotes all five historical thinking skills as presented in the Standards:

 

1. Chronological Thinking:

The sequence of events by which Fr. Coughlin comes to reject Roosevelt and the New Deal is halting and complex. Coughlin might express disapproval of one or another New Deal programs one day, and approval of others the next. He might reject some members of the administration at one point, and embrace them at others. Gradually, he came to refer to most of the administration, the president, and the New Deal, as "communist-oriented" or communist. The Chronology traces Coughlin's attitudes, and with the related documents, reveals that neither the New Deal nor Coughlin's attitudes toward the President can be viewed in an simplistic point-A to point-B chronology. Hence, the site can be used to show that chronological thinking is not deterministic, but that events nonetheless build upon previous events.

Similarly, while a simplistic view of Roosevelt and the New Deal from today's perspective suggests that FDR's reform programs were championed by the left from the outset, the economically progressive Fr. Ryan was skeptical of the FDR agenda at first, then gradually embraced it when he came to believe that they represented the best possible option at the time. Since his youth Ryan believed in the two-party system, and while he didn't believe the Roosevelt administration and the Democrats expanded government programs as fully as they could have, he did think the Democrats presented better options than the Republicans. Ryan didn't consider a third party option in the 1930s. The chronology and the documents reveal Ryan's progression toward acceptance of the New Deal and the Roosevelt presidency, also serving to challenge overly-deterministic thinking on the question of liberal and conservative politics.

 

2. Historical Comprehension:

Most of the primary document sources on this site are not available anywhere else on the Web. Here, the documents and supporting materials encourage students to think about a diversity of opinion existing within a single group, particularly one--the Catholic church--that many view as monolithic. In examining the radio addresses of Coughlin and Ryan, the letters to each, the newspaper reports on each, all available on this site, students gain historical comprehension of Catholics and presidential politics in the 1930s.

 

3. Historical Analysis and Interpretation:

This site contains documents that invite historical analysis and interpretation, largely because some of the terminology has a very different context than it does today. For example, when Fr. Coughlin publicly call Roosevelt's programs "communist oriented" the administration was infuriated and worried that Coughlin would take voters away from the Democratic party. Administration officials decided that, in addition to FDR rejecting the communist insinuation outright, asking Fr. Ryan to deliver a radio broadcast defending Roosevelt from such charges would prove effective. Why would a priest prove more effective at convincing Catholics than the president himself? Did this "endorsement" help the president win? What kind of reaction did Ryan receive after his "Safeguard" speech? Can a "Catholic" perspective on politics and communism in the 1930s U.S. be constructed from these materials? Why might such perspectives not be present in the standard U.S. history survey textbook? The documents here encourage students to think about such matters, thereby sharpening analytical and interpretive skills.

 

4. Historical Research and Capabilities:

Users of this site are encouraged to use its dozens of documents and images in their research. For example, the election returns from the nation, and the cities of Boston and Chicago present sources of analysis in themselves and just the tip of iceberg as far as understanding the available voting data on the 1936 election. How do the returns for Lemke, the Union Party candidate endorsed by Coughlin, for example, compare in Boston and Chicago? By precinct and ward? Why? The 1936 Gallup Poll documents reproduced here, moreover, might be correlated with national and regional data to arrive at original conclusions. For example, certain regions of the country expressed more approval of New Deal programs than others. Did these regions come out disproportionately for FDR than others? Further research into New Deal program implementation by ward and city and correlation with local voting patterns, among other subjects, can sharpen students' research skills.

 

5. Historical Issues-Analysis and Decision-Making:

  • We have identified several broader issues related to these documents, though obviously, educators can use the documents here to generate their own issues and questions. As our "So What?" page suggests, the following issues and questions encourage the growth of historical issues-analysis and decision-making skills:

  • Intersection of Catholic ideals and politics--How do Catholic ideals find their way into 1930s politics?
  • Catholic priests, church policy, and politics--What role should a priest play in national presidential politics?
  • The American public and the Catholic priest in the 1930s-What did the public think of the involvement of priests in presidential politics?
  • Radio as a force in 1930s politics--In what ways did the radio shape national politics?
  • Religion and American political action--How did religion affect politics in the 1930s? How does it affect politics today?
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